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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Tear It Down" and the art of crafting a true sonic narrative in dance music

The Aston Shuffle expertly execute a slow, but sure build, capping it off with the most satisfying release in the final break.

When you think of modern, electronically produced music — especially dance music — you likely think of a track that has a big chorus and/or break, but that big section doesn't really change from one big to the next. Maybe one small background element is added in the final time around, or the chorus is sung on top of it, but there isn't really that big of a change. The tracks are still plenty danceable (looks over at ~2300-track master house playlist), but even at their highest energy level, they don't feel like they're going anywhere. I feel that this lack of a continued upward trajectory prevents many people from connecting with the productions on a deeper level.

Today's selection — The Aston Shuffle's 2013 release "Tear It Down," is one of my favorite dance tracks specifically because it bucks the aforementioned trend. Its first break leaves a lot of room for the track to continue to grow, and its second break takes full advantage of that room, filling up the production and giving it the big finale it deserves. For a fully electronic track, its arc of growth feels surprisingly and refreshingly organic.

Canberra, Australia-based The Aston Shuffle — then a duo of Vance Musgrove and Mikah Freeman, now Musgrove's solo act — released "Tear It Down" as the third single off their second studio album, Photographs (2014). I was quick to come across it on YouTube because I had already known their music through their song "Won't Get Lost" and its remix treatment by fellow countryman Tommy Trash. Like "Won't Get Lost," "Tear It Down" falls on the more alternative side of house music, with less of the massive hooks and breaks typical of big room house in favor of greater emphasis on narrative and soundscape. These 'alternative' focuses lend themselves towards creating a more dynamic production in terms of sonic growth.

"Tear It Down" begins with the above focuses quite evident, with singer Will Heard's uncredited vocals immediately grabbing the spotlight over only a Wurlitzer keyboard synth. Heard sings of working to see through someone's deceptions, despite their attempts to build walls to stop them from doing so. His performance makes evident that the "scaling" and titular "tearing down" of these barriers is an emotional event, and one which exposes the subject's true self, for better or worse. I've always had a hard time deciding whether said "tearing down" is a good or bad thing for the person being exposed, because it's hard to establish a context in which the deceit was established. The official music video suggests that the action reveals an inner beauty, but I often hear the song as the narrator slighting someone who hurt them. I'm intrigued to hear what you may think of the song; feel free to comment on how you hear the lyrics.

Beneath Heard's lyrics, the song begins to take a more defined shape, with a syncopated stick-click line folding into a more typical, resolute four-on-the-floor beat. In the kick drum and beat remaining behind the vocal performance, the track remains somewhat subdued even as it becomes more danceable, before the kick drum drops out in the buildup to the first break.

As I said earlier, the beauty of the gradual build in "Tear It Down" comes from the difference between the two breaks. The first break clearly introduces the melody, chords, and other qualities which will come back in the second break, while very slowly getting more intense above the four-on-the-floor beat... until it simply stops. It gets you to dance, but it also leaves you wanting more and wondering what's next. As the Wurlitzer from the verse comes back in, it becomes clear that something bigger isn't coming for at least a little bit.

Anticipation continues to build as Heard repeats the song's lyrics, this second time with greater range and dynamism. The accompaniment is without percussion up to the start of the chorus ("I scaled the wall"), at which point Heard's intensity peaks. When the drums do return, it's a snare drum, not a kick, that hits on every beat. In continuing to keep the listener waiting by reconfiguring earlier material, Musgrove and Freeman further build anticipation for a massive release in the second break — and don't worry, they deliver it... after a little more build into it, reintroducing the break melody with a bright synth which slowly emerges as the other synths and vocal chops join it.

Then, at last, the final breakthrough comes. What a feeling when, after nearly 80 percent of the song, the true release finally hits in all its glory. The wall's been torn down, and everything behind it — whether good or bad — is now visible for all to see. It really does feel like it's taken a journey to get there in the four minutes leading up to it, and that's a rare feeling to get from a house- or house-adjacent track. So too is the feeling that the song is truly complete, rather than somewhat arbitrarily over, as the various elements drop out and fade away in the final measures.

In my busiest week of the entire calendar year — Big Game Week, and a time in which multiple class projects are coming together — I hear "Tear It Down" as an anthem for leaving everything out there, putting in full effort despite the lack of comfort which may come from being so exposed. Here's hoping I succeed in building myself up to the point that I don't regret anything come the week's end — and here's hoping Cal football does the same. Go Bears!


Remix postscript: Just like with "Won't Get Lost," "Tear It Down" got an excellent remix on Axwell's Axtone Records label, this time by Dutch producers NEW_ID. It condenses the form into just one time through the verse, chorus, and break, but it also builds up to the verse with a big beat, and its full-on big room break is huge. Sometimes I listen to the remix right after the original to get me irrevocably fired up.


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